Cyclone Mocha: Myanmar junta’s travel restrictions bar life-saving aid to cyclone-hit communities



Myanmar’s military junta has blocked humanitarian access to some cyclone-hit communities in western Rakhine state, destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in areas hit hard by Cyclone Mocha. poor in the country.

United Nations agencies said Thursday they were still negotiating access to parts of the state four days after Mocha hit the Myanmar coast on Sunday, one of the strongest storms to hit the country. .

Hundreds of people are feared dead and thousands more are in urgent need of shelter, clean water, food and health care as the devastation unfolds.

Although aid groups have warned of “huge casualties”, the exact number of casualties is difficult to ascertain due to flooding, road closures and communication disruptions.

In Rakhine state, where hundreds of thousands of refugees live, houses and infrastructure have been destroyed.

Storm damage has hampered access to rural and hard-to-reach areas, and long-standing travel restrictions imposed by the junta have delayed the delivery of relief aid to communities in dire need.

“Humanitarian actors have made it clear that the need to obtain travel permits is preventing them from responding to the cyclone,” said Tom Andrews, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar.

“Many agencies seem unable to conduct needs assessments, let alone provide assistance, because SAC (junta) officials have not authorized travel. This is very disturbing. »

The United Nations Humanitarian Office (OCHA) said it was waiting for the junta’s permission to reach communities in Rakhine State to launch coordinated missions on the ground to assess the scope of the “overall” humanitarian situation.

“Bureaucratic access restrictions affect all partners, including the UN and NGOs,” said Pierre Peron, OCHA’s regional public information officer. “For delivery, we will need access to affected people, ease of travel authorization requirements and expedited customs clearance of goods.”

About 5.4 million people in Rakhine and the northeast were in the path of the cyclone, which hit the state as a Category 5 storm with winds of more than 200 kilometers per hour (195 mph). Of these, more than 3 million people are the most vulnerable, according to the latest UN OCHA update.

Damage assessment in Kyauttau, Maungdau, Pauktau, Ponnagyun, Ratedaung and Sittwe townships is a priority, he said.

“The road between Yangon and Sittwe has now reopened, allowing for the movement of essential supplies if approved. We also hope that Sittwe airport will be reopened on Thursday,” UN OCHA said.

Another obstacle to relief efforts is a significant funding gap, with less than 10% of the $764 million humanitarian aid plan funded.

“Partners cannot meet these additional cyclone needs and continue our efforts across the country without additional financial support from donors,” said UN OCHA’s Peron.

Médecins Sans Frontières told CNN that there are a number of travel authorizations in place for staff for the month of May, “which has allowed us to remain fully operational so far and to focus on vital activities in the most affected areas.”

“Travel in Rakhine State is restricted except for the state capital Sittwe. Permission is always required. All humanitarian agencies must apply for a travel permit to carry out activities one month before departure,” said Paul Brockmann, MSF’s operations manager in Myanmar.

A girl draws water from a pump at the Basara refugee camp in Sittwe, May 16, after Cyclone Mocha.

Brockman said the scale of the humanitarian medical needs caused by the cyclone was “enormous” and speedy approval of import permits and travel permits “is critical given that the authorities have declared 17 localities disaster zones”.

“The needs are widespread and beyond the capacity of any single organization to meet,” he said.

Rakhine is a largely impoverished and isolated state that has been the subject of widespread political violence in recent years.

The protracted conflict has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the state, many of them members of the stateless Rohingya minority group, long persecuted in Myanmar.

The Rohingya in Rakhine are mostly confined to open-air prison-like camps, where authorities tightly control their movement, as well as their access to schooling and health care.

Some humanitarian groups and journalists are strictly restricted from entering these areas.

Aung Saw Hein, a resident of a refugee camp in Sittwe, Rakhine’s capital, told CNN the storm “turned us into refugees again.”

“We have been refugees for about 11 years… We have no access to health care, we cannot rest… we cannot provide for the basic needs of our family members, such as food,” he said. “And now this storm has completely destroyed our lives and set us back on track.”

Myanmar authorities have long prevented vulnerable communities from accessing aid.

After a brutal and bloody military campaign since 2017 that has forced 740,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh, aid efforts in the north of the state have been suspended and authorities have prevented actors from delivering humanitarian aid to communities in need, primarily the Rohingya people. – support groups.

A Rohingya woman stands in her damaged house in the Basara refugee camp in Sittwe after Cyclone Mocha on May 16.

After the 2021 military coup, the junta and its security forces imposed new travel restrictions on aid workers, closed access roads and aid convoys, and destroyed non-military supplies, Human Rights Watch said.

Aung Kyaw Moe, a Rohingya adviser to Myanmar’s shadow government of national unity, tweeted that the junta is “blocking aid agencies in Rakhine” and that the former junta administration should not play such a game after Cyclone Nargis in 2008. international disaster relief teams and delivery of supplies to those in need. About 140 thousand people died.

“This is their main organization,” said UN special rapporteur Andrews.

“Along with access difficulties in Rakhine State, restrictions on freedom of movement for the Rohingya have further hampered their ability to access aid and services, including medical care.

The IFRC said in a statement that “access to Rakhine and the north-west is severely restricted” but that the Myanmar Red Cross Society “is present in every affected locality through its branches and volunteers”. “.

A spokesman for Partners Relief & Development, which has worked in the camps since the first violence in mid-2012, said they had had few restrictions on their activities during that time and had “a strong local network to carry out our relief efforts”.

However, “access has become much more difficult over the past three years and current government restrictions are now making it difficult to access affected areas,” the spokesman said.

“Our hope is that unhindered access will be ensured and that local authorities will not only facilitate access to aid, but also provide assistance and treat the Rohingya with care and respect.”

CNN has reached out to Myanmar’s military junta for comment on restrictions on access and aid in Rakhine following the cyclone.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing was quoted by state media Global New Light of Myanmar as saying “rescue teams must be sent to the storm-affected areas to carry out rescue, relief and recovery efforts.”

State media reported that Min Aung Hlein, a UNESCO World Heritage site famous for its ancient temples, visited cyclone-hit areas in Bagan. It also published reports of the junta’s deputy prime minister, Admiral Thein Aung San, visiting towns and villages around Sittwe, overseeing the delivery of water tanks, food and cash aid.

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